I spent my K-12 life at VSD #37. Today I’m back, doing a “Tough Kids” and suicide prevention workshop at Skyview H.S. Should be fun. Here are the handouts.
From 13 Reasons Why, to Chris Cornell’s recent death, issues pertaining to suicide have been in our face this month. This is no surprise. May (late spring in the Northern hemisphere) is nearly always the month with the highest suicide rates.
That’s why right now is an excellent time for some straight talk about suicide.
Suicide is an emotionally triggering topic that’s notoriously difficult to talk or write about. Most of us know people who have been suicidal. Some of us know people who have died by suicide. Still others who read this may be having suicidal thoughts in this moment, or may have made suicide attempts in the past. Talking and writing about suicide is unpleasant, but necessary.
Because suicide is difficult to talk about, myths and misconceptions flourish. Not talking (or writing) about suicide also makes it harder to keep tabs on the latest research. Sometimes, leading professional journals neglect publishing new articles on suicide for a decade or more. This brings me to my purpose. To bust a few stubborn suicide-related myths and provide a glimpse at recent research on suicide prevention.
Let’s begin with now.
It’s a beautiful green spring in Montana with brilliant white snow in the mountains. Despite this beauty and brilliance, suicide rates rise in the spring and early summer and drop in fall and winter. Most people think the opposite is true, but every year, late spring and early summer bring the highest rates. Why? There are theories, but unfortunately, “we don’t know” is the answer to this and many questions related to suicide. I’m starting with this misconception to illustrate how easy it is to get the even the simplest facts related to suicide completely wrong.
One of the most insidious and unhealthy myths about suicide is the promotion of the idea that suicidal thoughts and impulses represent deviance or indicate the presence of a mental disorder. Once again, although many think it so, this idea is also untrue. Suicidal thoughts are a normal and natural response to psychological distress and misery. Social disconnection (relationship break-ups, death of a loved one, or other relationship problems) also can trigger suicidal thoughts in so-called “normal” people.
Our entire culture needs to stop classifying suicidal thoughts as automatic deviance. At one point or another, most people contemplate suicide, at least briefly. That fact pretty much blows the whole idea of suicidal thoughts as deviance right out of the metaphorical water.
Suicidal thoughts can be associated with specific mental disorders, but they are not, in and of themselves, signs of a mental disorder. In a recent large scale study, it was reported that mental disorders and suicidal thoughts weren’t useful in determining which individuals would eventually make suicide attempts.
Believing that suicidal thoughts represent a mental disorder isn’t just untrue, it’s also unhelpful. People who are suicidal, don’t need the public or professionals to make them feel worse by implying that their suicidal thoughts represent some form of illness.
Another surprising research finding is that, in general, suicide warning signs and suicide risk factors are unhelpful. This is true despite the fact that following a death by suicide, one of the first messages you’ll hear in the media is how important it is to watch for specific suicide warning signs. Unfortunately, like many things related to suicide, this is both good and bad advice. It’s good advice in that it’s always important to notice when friends, family, coworkers, and strangers are in distress and to do what we can to be comforting. But it’s also bad advice. Pointing the public or professionals toward warning signs implies that scientifically-based warning signs exist. They don’t.
There’s no science that supports the usefulness of warning signs or risk factors. This may seem discouraging, but it shouldn’t, because it leads to ONE BIG EXCELLENT CONCLUSION. That is, we should all try to offer support, empathy, and compassion to everyone. The take-home message is, don’t wait to encounter a suicidal person to unleash your kind and compassionate side. You should be leading with that. All. The. Time.
Chew on this idea for a moment. We’re stuck. If we’re interested in suicide prevention (or in having healthy relationships), our best default response is to treat everyone with kindness, respect, and empathy. I understand that’s impossible and I understand that you may think there are some exceptions to universal compassion. But we should try to lead with kindness, respect, and empathy anyway.
A good thing about having a general philosophy of kindness and compassion is that it helps suicidal people trust you. It will be harder for them to conclude, “This person is just being nice because I’m suicidal.” Instead, you’ll be treating everyone with kindness and empathy simply because that’s the sort of world you’re creating around you.
Another common suicide myth is that asking about suicide might somehow put the idea of suicide into someone’s head. Not true. Most people who are suicidal feel relieved and appreciative if you ask them about it in a nonjudgmental way. And, if you ask someone and they aren’t suicidal, well, the point is that people are highly resilient. They’re not so fragile that posing a short inquiry about suicide suddenly becomes life threatening. The other point is that you should ask with kindness and compassion. Even better, you should normalize the question by saying something like, “It’s not unusual for someone in your situation to have thoughts about suicide. I’m wondering if you’ve been having suicidal thoughts?” Making a statement that normalizes (rather than pathologizes) suicidal thoughts can make it easier to for people to talk more openly . . . and when people who are suicidal are talking openly, it will be easier for you to be helpful.
As if it weren’t already hard enough, another thing that’s especially complex is that when people are contemplating suicide, they often have strong negative reactions to infringements on their personal freedoms. This is partly why telling someone, you shouldn’t or can’t choose suicide, is a bad idea. Well-meaning helpers who push people too hard away from suicidal thoughts and toward embracing life can come across as “not understanding.” This could trigger an oppositional response. The person you want to help might either stop talking about it (but keep thinking about it) or feel an urge to oppose all suicide prevention or intervention efforts.
It’s not unusual for suicidal people to feel interpersonally isolated, disconnected, or as if they’re a burden to family, friends, and society. This makes connecting with them all the more important. It’s unfortunate, but people experiencing depression can be rather irritable or unappreciative of your efforts to listen and help. When you express concern, they might say something nasty in response. If so, let go of your needs for feeling appreciated; listen and be supportive anyway.
People who are suicidal can have difficulty problem-solving in a way that reflects hopefulness. Who wouldn’t have trouble being optimistic after experiencing repeated misery? This is why it’s important to problem-solve WITH people who are suicidal. Don’t usurp their control; lend another perspective. Part of this perspective might be the simple message that suicide is always an alternative, but that it’s important to wait and try as many other alternatives as possible.
Often, the response to your problem-solving efforts will be something like, “I’ve tried everything and nothing helps.” Again, we need to understand that when someone is suicidal, this is how it feels! At this point, acknowledge that right now it feels like nothing could possibly help. But at the same time, it’s okay to say things like, “I want you to live.”
If you’re problem-solving with someone who is suicidal, it’s also important to be persistent. Try saying something like, “Let’s make a list of everything you’ve tried, starting with whatever was the worst and most unhelpful idea ever.” Starting with what was unhelpful can resonate with the person’s pessimistic mood and help you identify something that’s at least not the worst option on the planet.
Chris Cornell’s recent death by suicide is a reminder of how specific medications can sometimes increase an individual’s agitation and/or suicidal thoughts. He was taking Ativan (Lorazepam). Ativan is a benzodiazepine (like Xanax and Valium). IMHO (and the science supports this), benzos are very bad medications to use for anything other than very short-term treatment. The bottom line is that sometimes (not always) psychiatric medications are not a part of the suicide solution and can become part of the suicide problem.
Among other things, Thirteen Reasons Why is a reminder of how easy it is for people to feel tremendously guilty when someone dies by suicide. Twenty-six years later, I still feel guilt over the death of a boy with whom I was working. Was it my fault? Absolutely not. Do I still feel bad? Absolutely yes.
Death by suicide is a tragedy. I’m tempted to say that it’s always a tragedy, but I recognize that when it comes to humans and humanity, using the terms always and never is dicey.
Some individuals are living with what they experience as intolerable physical, psychological, or emotional suffering. For their loved ones it’s likely still a tragedy when they die by suicide, but is it a tragedy for them? It’s hard to rule out the possibility that death by suicide may represent solace for them.
Suicide is a very personal option on the palette of human choice. For example, I want people to live. I want to help them reduce their psychological pain, make positive relationship connections, and re-engage in activities they find meaningful. But even so, sometimes suicide happens anyway. This is deeply painful and the guilt can be enormous. If someone close to you dies by suicide or you’re feeling affected by any suicide-related event, please find someone to talk with. One of my former clients once said, “The mind is a terrible place . . . to go alone.” Find someone you can trust and share any dark thoughts you might be having. Deal with it. Don’t let your guilt and angst simmer.
To summarize, suicide rates are highest right now. Does that mean we can relax later? Of course not. Suicide risk factors and warning signs are mostly useless and so we should treat people with respect and compassion all the time. When needed, we should ask the suicide question directly and with a spirit of non-judgmental normality. When possible, we should help people with suicidal thoughts identify options that might move them toward feeling better, while acknowledging that suicide is an option. We need to remember that sometimes medications can make suicidality worse. Perfect prevention is impossible. Suicide may happen despite our best efforts. Dealing with guilt over a suicide takes time and requires support.
No one will be completely happy with the ideas I’ve written here. That’s good. Individual reactions to suicide issues are unique. If you want to argue with or improve on these ideas, feel free to engage in the conversation. Using an attitude of kindness and respect, let’s keep talking about suicide. Right now, that’s the best solution we have to our suicide problem. In fact, it may be the best solution we’ll ever have.
To check out my recent professional journal article in Professional Psychology, click here: SF and Shaw Suicide 2017
Nearly everyone agrees that asking clients directly about suicide is the right thing. However, because every client situation is unique, there are also many different strategies for asking about suicide. In this short excerpt from Clinical Interviewing, we discuss how to bring up suicide using information from outside of the counseling or assessment session.
Using Outside Information to initiate Risk and Protective Factor Assessment
Outside of the formal suicide assessment interview, three main sources of information can be used to initiate a discussion with clients about suicide risk and protective factors:
- Client Records
- Assessment Instruments
- Collateral Informants
If available, your client’s previous medical or mental health (med-psych) records are a quick and efficient source for client risk and protective factor information. Many risk factors listed in this chapter won’t be in your client’s records, but you should look closely for factors, such as: (a) previous suicide ideation and attempts; (b) a history of a depression diagnosis; and (c) familial suicide. After your standard intake interviewing opening and rapport building, you can use the records to broach these issues.
I saw in your records that you attempted suicide back in 2012. Could you tell me what was going on in your life back then to trigger that attempt?
When exploring previous suicide attempts, it’s important to do so in a constructive manner that can contribute to treatment (see Case Example 10.2). Using psychoeducation to explain to clients why you’re asking about the past helps frame and facilitate the process.
The reason I’m asking about your previous suicide attempt is because the latest research indicates that the more we know about the specific stresses that triggered a past attempt, the better we can work together to help you cope with that stress now and in the future.
Don’t forget to balance your questioning about previous suicide attempts with a focus on the positive.
Often, after a suicide attempt, people say they discovered some new strengths or resources or specific people who were especially helpful. How about for you? Did you have anything positive you discovered in the time after your suicide attempt.
It may be difficult to identify protective factors in your client’s med-psych records. However, if you find evidence of protective factors or personal strengths, you should bring them up in the appropriate context during a suicide assessment interview. For example, when interviewing a client who’s talking about despair associated with a current depressive episode, you might say something like:
I noticed in your records that you had a similar time a couple years ago when you were feeling very down and discouraged. And, according to your therapist back then, you worked very hard and managed to climb back up out of that depressing place. What worked for you back then?
Strive to use information from your clients’ records collaboratively. As illustrated, you can use the information to broach delicate issues (both positive and negative).
Traditionally, previous suicide attempts are considered one of the strongest predictors of future suicidal behaviors. However, as with all risk factors, previous attempts should be considered within the idiosyncratic context of each individual client. Case example 10.2 provides a glimpse of a case where a previous attempt ends up serving as a protective factor, rather than a risk factor.
Case Example 10.2
Exploring Previous Attempts as a Method for Understanding Client Stressors and Coping Strategies
Exploring previous suicide attempts is an assessment process. It can illuminate past stressors, but it’s equally useful for helping clients articulate past, present, and future coping responses.
Therapist: You wrote on your intake form that you attempted suicide about a year and a half ago. Can you tell me a bit about that?
Client: Right. I shot myself in the head. It’s obvious. You can see the scar right here.
Therapist: What was happening in your life that brought you to that point?
Client: I was getting bullied in school. I hated my step-father. Life was shit, so one day after school I took the pistol out of my mom’s room, aimed at my head and shot.
Therapist: What happened then?
Client: I woke up in the hospital with a bad fucking headache. And then there was rehab. It was a long road, but here I am.
Therapist: Right. Here you are. What do you make of that?
Client: I’m lucky. I’m bad at suicide. I don’t know. I suppose I took it to mean that I’m supposed to be alive.
Therapist: Have you had any thoughts about suicide recently?
Client: Nope. Nada. Not one.
Therapist: I guess from what you said that getting bullied or having family issues could still be hard for you. How do you cope with that now?
Client: I’ve got some friends. I’ve got my sister. I talk to them. You know, after you do what I did, you find out who really cares about you. Now I know.
Spring is coming to the Northern Hemisphere. Along with spring, there will also be a bump in death by suicide. To help prepare counselors and clinicians to talk directly with clients about suicide, I’m posting an excerpt from the Clinical Interviewing text. The purpose is to help everyone be more comfortable talking about suicidal thoughts and feelings because the more comfortable we are, the more likely clients are to openly share their suicidal thoughts and feelings and that gives us a chance to engage them as a collaborative helper.
Here’s a link to the text https://www.amazon.com/Clinical-Interviewing-Video-Resource-Center/dp/1119084237/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8
And here’s the excerpt:
Exploring Suicide Ideation
Unlike many other risk factors (e.g., demographic factors), suicide ideation is directly linked to potential suicide behavior. It’s difficult to imagine anyone ever dying by suicide without having first experienced suicide ideation.
Because of this, you may decide to systematically ask every client about suicide ideation during initial clinical interviews. This is a conservative approach and guarantees you won’t face a situation where you should have asked about suicide, but didn’t. Alternatively, you may decide to weave questions about suicide ideation into clinical interviews as appropriate. At least initially, for developing professionals, we recommend using the systematic approach. However, we recognize that this can se0em rote. From our perspective, it is better to learn to ask artfully by doing it over and over than to fail to ask and regret it.
The nonverbal nature of communication has direct implications for how and when you ask about suicide ideation, depressive symptoms, previous attempts, and other emotionally laden issues. For example, it’s possible to ask: “Have you ever thought about suicide?” while nonverbally communicating to the client: “Please, please say no!” Therefore, before you decide how you’ll ask about suicide ideation, you need the right attitude about asking the question.
Individuals who have suicidal thoughts can be extremely sensitive to social judgment. They may have avoided sharing suicidal thoughts out of fear of being judged as “insane” or some other stigma. They’re likely monitoring you closely and gauging whether you’re someone to trust with this deeply intimate information. To pass this unspoken test of trust, it’s important to endorse, and directly or indirectly communicate the following beliefs:
- Suicide ideation is normal and natural and counseling is a good place for clients to share those thoughts.
- I can be of better help to clients if they tell me their emotional pain, distress, and suicidal thoughts.
- I want my clients to share their suicidal thoughts.
- If my clients share their suicidal thoughts and plans, I can handle it!
If you don’t embrace these beliefs, clients experiencing suicide ideation may choose to be less open.
Asking Directly about Suicide Ideation
Asking about suicide ideation may feel awkward. Learning to ask difficult questions in a deliberate, compassionate, professional, and calm manner requires practice. It also may help to know that, in a study by Hahn and Marks (1996), 97% of previously suicidal clients were either receptive or neutral about discussing suicide with their therapists during intake sessions. It also may help to know that you’re about to learn the three most effective approaches to asking about suicide that exist on this planet.
Use a normalizing frame. Most modern prevention and intervention programs recommend directly asking clients something like, “Have you been thinking about suicide recently?” This is an adequate approach if you’re in a situation with someone you know well and from whom you can expect an honest response.
A more nuanced approach is to ask about suicide along with a normalizing or universalizing statement about suicide ideation. Here’s the classic example:
Well, I asked this question since almost all people at one time or another during their lives have thought about suicide. There is nothing abnormal about the thought. In fact it is very normal when one feels so down in the dumps. The thought itself is not harmful. (Wollersheim, 1974, p. 223)
Three more examples of using a normalizing frame follow:
- I’ve read that up to 50% of teenagers have thought about suicide. Is that true for you?
- Sometimes when people are down or feeling miserable, they think about suicide and reject the idea or they think about suicide as a solution. Have you had either of these thoughts about suicide?
- I have a practice of asking everyone I meet with about suicide and so I’m going to ask you: Have you had thoughts about death or suicide?
A common fear is that asking about suicide will put suicidal ideas in clients’ heads. There’s no evidence to support this (Jobes, 2006). More likely, your invitation to share suicidal thoughts will reassure clients that you’re comfortable with the subject, in control of the situation, and capable of dealing with the problem.
Use gentle assumption. Based on over two decades of clinical experience with suicide assessment Shawn Shea (2002/ 2004/2015) recommends using a framing strategy referred to as gentle assumption. To use gentle assumption, the interviewer presumes that certain illegal or embarrassing behaviors are already occurring in the client’s life, and gently structures questions accordingly. For example, instead of asking “Have you been thinking about suicide?” you would ask:
When was the last time when you had thoughts about suicide?
Gentle assumption can make it easier for clients to disclose suicide ideation.
Use mood ratings with a suicidal floor. It can be helpful to ask about suicide in the context of a mood assessment (as in a mental status examination). Scaling questions such as those that follow can be used to empathically assess mood levels.
- Is it okay if I ask some questions about your mood? (This is an invitation for collaboration; clients can say “no,” but rarely do.)
- Please rate your mood right now, using a zero to 10 scale. Zero is the worst mood possible. In fact, zero would mean you’re totally depressed and so you’re just going to kill yourself. At the top, 10 is your best possible mood. A 10 would mean you’re as happy as you could possibly be. Maybe you would be dancing or singing or doing whatever you do when you’re extremely happy. Using that zero to 10 scale, what rating would you give your mood right now? (Each end of the scale must be anchored for mutual understanding.)
- What’s happening now that makes you give your mood that rating? (This links the mood rating to the external situation.)
- What’s the worst or lowest mood rating you’ve ever had? (This informs the interviewer about the lowest lows.)
- What was happening back then to make you feel so down? (This links the lowest rating to the external situation and may lead to discussing previous attempts.)
- For you, what would be a normal mood rating on a normal day? (Clients define their normal.)
- Now tell me, what’s the best mood rating you think you’ve ever had? (The process ends with a positive mood rating.)
- What was happening that helped you have such a high mood rating? (The positive rating is linked to an external situation.)
The preceding protocol assumes clients are minimally cooperative. More advanced interviewing procedures can be added when clients are resistant (see Chapter 12). The process facilitates a deeper understanding of life events linked to negative moods and suicide ideation. This can lead to formal counseling or psychotherapy, as well as safety planning.
Responding to Suicide Ideation
Let’s say you broach the question and your client openly discloses the presence of suicide ideation. What next?
First, remember that hearing about your client’s suicide ideation is good news. It reflects trust. Also remember that depressive and suicidal symptoms are part of a normal response to distress. Validate and normalize:
Given the stress you’re experiencing, it’s not unusual for you to sometimes think about suicide. It sounds like things have been really hard lately.
This validation is important because many suicidal individuals feel socially disconnected, emotionally invalidated, and as if they’re a social burden (Joiner, 2005). Your empathic reflection may be more or less specific, depending on how much detailed information your client has given you.
As you continue the assessment, collaboratively explore the frequency, triggers, duration, and intensity of your client’s suicidal thoughts.
- Frequency: How often do you find yourself thinking about suicide?
- Triggers: What seems to trigger your suicidal thoughts? What gets them started?
- Duration: How long do these thoughts stay with you once they start?
- Intensity: How intense are your thoughts about suicide? Do they gently pop into your head or do they have lots of power and sort of smack you down?
As you explore the suicide ideation, strive to emanate calmness, and curiosity, rather than judgment. Instead of thinking, “We need to get rid of these thoughts,” engage in collaborative and empathic exploration.
Some clients will deny suicidal thoughts. If this happens, and it feels genuine, acknowledge and accept the denial, while noting that you were just using your standard practice.
Okay. Thanks. Asking about suicidal thoughts is just something I think is important to do with everyone.
On the other hand, if the denial seems forced, or is combined with depressive symptoms or other risk factors, you’ll still want to use acknowledgement and acceptance, but then find a way to return to the topic later in the session.
In case you haven’t seen it, I had an op-ed piece on suicide prevention published in the Missoulian yesterday. I think it has pretty good information, but would like feedback if you have some thoughts on the topic.
Have a great rest of the week.
This is how it goes.
You read, gather background information, do research, and carefully write a manuscript. You put in so many hours or days or weeks that you lose track of how much time you’ve put in—which is a good thing. You re-read, edit, get feedback, revise, and do your best to produce an excellent manuscript. You upload it a portal where it magically finds its way to a professional journal editor. Then, because you can only submit a manuscript to one journal at a time, you wait.
A month passes.
You keep waiting.
If you’re lucky, you hear back from the journal editor via email within two months. You click on the email with a mix of anticipation and dread. Then, ta-da, you learn your manuscript was REJECTED.
The editor is polite, but pointedly informs you that this particular journal doesn’t recognize the magnificence of your work. To add insult to injury, your rejection is accompanied by critiques from three different reviewers. These reviewers were apparently named by Dr. Seuss: Reviewer 1, Reviewer 2, and Reviewer 3.
Some rejections are worse than others. Maybe it’s because your hopes were too high; or maybe it’s because the journal’s impact factor rating was so low. Getting rejected when the journal has an impact rating of “0” can bring down your self-esteem to a similar level.
And then there are the reviewers.
It’s important to remember that reviewers are busy, fallible, human, and unpaid volunteers. They’re also purportedly experts, although I’ve had experiences that led me to question their expertise. Many appear to have a proverbial axe to grind. Perhaps because they experienced scathing critiques in their professional childhood, they feel the need to pass on the pain. Sometimes they just seem obtuse. I’ve wondered a time or two if maybe a reviewer forgot to actually read the manuscript before offering an off-point “review.”
If you sense bitterness, it might be because over the past several years I’ve experienced an extra-large load of rejections. When the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) rejected my manuscript in less than a week, I was disappointed. But because the NEJM is the most prestigious journal on the planet, I didn’t linger much on the rejection, because rejection was expected. But when a decidedly less-prestigious professional group rejected all my proposals to present at an annual conference, I was deeply hurt, saddened, and angry. Reading the reviewers’ comments didn’t help.
At one point last summer, in a fit of self-pity, I decided to count up my two-year rejection total. I got to 20, had a flash of insight, and stopped. It was like counting cloudy days. My advice: Unless you’re especially serious about depressing yourself, don’t count up your rejections. If you’re into counting, put that energy into counting the sunny days.
One time, back when I was immature and impulsive, I received an insensitive and insulting rejection from a low tier journal. My response: A hasty, nasty, and indignant email lambasting the editor and his single reviewer for their poor decision-making process and outcome. Sending the email was immediately gratifying, but, like many immediately gratifying things, not reflective of good judgment. I never heard back. And now, when I see that editor at conferences, it’s awkward.
More recently, I responded to a rejection from a high-status conference with humility along with a gentle inquiry about re-consideration. Less than 24 hours later they discovered “one more slot” and I was in! It was a paid gig, for an excellent conference, and at a convenient venue. Bingo. Let that be a lesson to me.
Last month I received a different sort of journal rejection. It was an invitation to “Revise and Resubmit.”
Put in romantic terms, revise and resubmit is lukewarm and confusing. The message is, “I kind of like you, and you have potential, but I’m not ready for a commitment.” But if you’ve been casting out and reeling in a raft of rejections, revise and resubmit is a welcome flirtation.
I had submitted a manuscript focusing on suicide risk assessment to a reasonably good journal. It was a good manuscript. In fact, Reviewer 3 recommended publication. But Reviewer 1 spoiled my day by offering 23 substantial and picky suggestions. The editor, who wrote me a long and rather nice email, decided to go with Reviewer 1’s opinion: revise and resubmit.
Given that I’ve been reviewing the suicide risk assessment literature for a couple decades, I assumed I was well-versed in the area. But when I read through Reviewer 1’s suggestions I was surprised, humbled, and eventually pleased. Reviewer 1 had many excellent points.
Looking back and forward, I think this is what I like best about submitting manuscripts to professional journals. Basically, you get a free critique and although some reviewers are duds, others are experts in the field who provide you with a fabulous educational opportunity. There’s always so much more to learn.
The moral of this story and blog post is that the attitude we have toward rejection is far more important than our fragile egos (at least it’s more important than my fragile ego). In response to the revise and resubmit verdict, I’ve graciously accepted the feedback, engaged a co-author to help me, and we have now systematically plowed through the 23 recommendations. The result: Last week we re-submitted a vastly improved manuscript.
Now we wait.
Although I have hope for success, I also realize that Reviewer 1 may have a bit more educational feedback to offer. But this time around, I’m looking forward to it.